While on a plane to New York, I learned that there’s maybe no more gratifying read while you’re on a vacation… than a travel memoir of someone who is clearly not enjoying theirs. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again made me all the more glad that I was headed to the Big Apple and not to a trip around the Caribbean on a sterile leviathan of a cruise ship packed with yuppies. Though the article was written over 15 years ago, it felt like a sort of phantom holiday was taking place simultaneously with mine, with the late, great DFW reporting nauseously from his cabin.
I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 21000 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as “Mon” in three different nations. I have watched 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide….
Harpers magazine paid $3000 to put a tortured genius on a luxury liner and see what he comes back with in his notebooks. The resulting 100-page essay was part personal reportage, part anthropological study, part Animal Crackers, part Notes From Underground.
I found him to be a wonderful reporter on this journey because he’s both a bumbling Joe Blo and a savant. He has the outsider’s perspective in everything from fine dining to skeet shooting, but he can describe his anxieties and observations with a verbal virtuosity and perceptiveness that makes other travel memoirists look like Mitch Albom. Most notably, his outsider status is combined with a shame for being part of a gluttonous horde of materialists in the unamused eyes of the ship’s servers, stewards, managers, porters, etc. His pangs multiply once the ship ports and spills its vacationers out upon the local islanders, and he stays aboard watching the exodus below.
Whether up here or down there, I am an American tourist, and am thus ex efficio large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance-conscious, ashamed, despairing, and greedy: the world’s only known species of bovine carnivore.
Now, I’ve actually been on a cruise before. I was 14 and it was a Disney Cruise, and though my vantage point was in many ways different, I found his descriptions of despair to still be uncomfortably familiar. Back then I didn’t have anywhere near the social consciousness that I have now, but I had at least twice the self-consciousness, and that makes “ASFTINDA” pretty resonant, too. (I was trying to shake off middle school—a period I remember mainly as a series of events in which I said the wrong thing. My experience on the boat, especially considering my interactions with the opposite sex, was merely a continuation of that period in a more surreal setting.)
Also in the essay collection are two pieces centering around tennis: I read one, and just one because I don’t care about tennis. There’s also his article on the Illinois State Fair (the Harper’s assignment that later inspired the magazine to send him on the cruise), which is in many ways the poor man’s version of his title piece. I also read his David Lynch Keeps His Head, which actually helped me better comprehend that guy’s movies, so that’s definitely to DFW’s credit. But really, “ASFTINDA” alone is worth the book price.
Consider the Foster
After this and Consider the Lobster, I can definitely say I enjoy DFW while dogged by the awareness that someone else might find him unbearably self-indulgent. I’m trying to figure out what makes the difference.
Maybe it’s that he’s convinced me of his sincerity—that his brand of avant-garde writing is not just some pretentious post-postmodern literary wankery. To use a phrase my girlfriend often does when she discovers this about an author, He Earns It. His idiosyncrasies simply work for me, down to the infamous footnoting.
And see, normally I don’t tolerate meanderings well. But DFW’s signature footnotes—with one stretching over two and a half pages to describe his tablemates at dinner—go to some fascinating places, and the lengthiest are often most worthwhile. This is just another part, though, of his sort of semi-controlled whirling dervish of a writing style; e.g. sometimes he’ll write something in the main body that kicks off a footnote just so he can tell a joke in it.
Sure, he isn’t always talking to you (when he is it’s strikingly intimate), but here’s a guy who, when he talks to himself, you want to hear what he says.